alister mcrae taxi ride

When I heard that Proton will have a taxi ride session to let the media experience its Satria Neo Super 2000 rally car, and with Alister McRae behind the wheel, I knew that I had to be there – come rain or shine. The Neo, pilot McRae and co-driver Bill Hayes were in town fresh from finishing second overall in the Rally of Scotland, the final race of the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC).

Developed by UK-based Mellors Elliot Motorsport (MEM), the Satria Neo S2000 is powered by a 278 bhp/271 Nm 2.0-litre engine engine that was modified from the Renault sourced powerplant in the Waja 1.8. Drive goes to all four wheels via a Xtrac six-speed sequential gearbox. For more technical information, see our previous post.

Continue reading the rest of the story and check out the video after the jump!

Satria Neo Super 2000

The standard Satria Neo is one of the sportiest hatchback shapes in the car world, and the Super 2000 is one lovely looking rally car. The widened body goes really well with the low roof and the overall visual impact is great. Proton says that the Neo has the lowest roof height and smallest frontal area among Super 2000 cars. We say that it’s the best looking car in the IRC. Even Top Gear UK (in its December magazine), who normally has “nice” things to say about Proton, called the Neo S2000 “handsome” and “desirable”. Yes, you heard right, Top Gear praising a Proton!

It was a tiring drive to Sepang, made worse by the long wait for my turn, but it was worth every minute. After clambering in the small “hole” with thick rollcage around it, I sat very low, much lower than the standard car, with my legs stretched out race car style. Alister sat a little higher than me, and we chatted through the radio system (built in speaker and mic in my helmet) before rolling off. The tall Scot fit perfectly in the Neo, not something many can say for the standard car!

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We drove a short distance to the start of the 2km palm oil estate course, part of which is an actual stage in the Malaysian Rally Championship. The sky poured moments ago and it was cloudy, which made it rather dark in the middle of an estate. I didn’t have perfect vision out because of the seating position, but enough to see that the trail wasn’t very wide, and on both sides are trenches that if one wheel goes in, I could imagine the car flipping.

The straights weren’t that long, so we needed big acceleration and big braking, which showed off great stopping power although the car wasn’t travelling on an even surface. We then approached a crest where McRae accelerated hard to let the Neo jump over it – the ever so famous WRC image.

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But all my rally preconceptions ended soon after as we approach a series of corners. In the tighter bends (some were V shaped) Alister used the handbrake, but never throughout the course did we enter into big drifts, in fact never did he let the car go sideways at big angles. It felt a lot as if we were in a very sharp FWD car! We weren’t of course, so counter steering was needed and Alister worked the steering a lot, and at amazing speed.

But what hit me most because I didn’t expect it was the car’s damping. The surface was trecherous – big stones on a loose surface, not the sandy, smoky trails we see on TV – but the S2000’s ride quality was better than in some luxury cars – it’s just mindboggling! We went through all sorts of obstacles in that 2km loop – potholes, puddles, rocks, you name it – but the suspension soaked it all up, allowing the driver to fully concentrate on placing the car.

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There was a zig-zag corner where Alister flicked the car left to right and I did not feel any weight transfer, despite the jacked up gravel suspension setup (with 15-inch wheels), which has more travel and is more robust than a tarmac setup.

Going fast is one thing; going fast on narrow trails where a mistake might mean death is another thing altogether. The trees felt so close to me I could swear we hit a few (we didn’t of course), and every corner looks the same in an oil palm grid, so razor sharp response and alertness are vital for a rally pilot.

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It was exciting but not terrifying, as I was in good hands. I did instictively grab my seat a few times, but one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had on the job was over in no time. Yet another tick on the “must do” list!

The Satria Neo S2000 will continue testing both in Europe and here in Malaysia. Next year, the team will compete the full-season of the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship (APRC), selected IRC races (sadly the Monte Carlo rally isn’t likely to be one) and the Middle East championship, where Proton is aiming to grow its presence. Good luck guys!